When I first designed this program, How Dogs Help Kids Read and Succeed in the Classroom, my intention was to help children become stronger, more confident readers while learning to be kind, safe, and compassionate towards dogs and other animals. We are now rounding the corner to enter our sixth week of the program, and on Friday I had a lunch meeting with the teachers to check in with them and see how everything was going. They told me that “The kids absolutely love this program” and that things were going really well. I was happy to hear all of this, of course, but something one teacher said next took me by surprise.
This teacher looked me straight in the eye and said, “Well, this program has certainly taught me to be kinder to my dog.” I looked at her. “What do you mean?” I asked. She explained that she had just taught Lesson 5, which features a wonderful book called Before You Were Mine by Maribeth Boelts. This book tells the story of a little boy’s wonderings about what kind of a life his dog had before his family took him home from the shelter.
The teacher explained that she too had adopted a dog from a shelter, and that he had all kinds of undesirable behaviors that frustrated and annoyed her. But then she explained that not only this book, but all of the lessons the children had been learning, had given her new insight into her dog’s behaviors and gave her some context for why, perhaps, her dog didn’t behave in ways that we would hope for. Sadly, especially when an animal has been abused, the fear and trauma from the abuse can lead to excessive chewing, barking, and other anxiety-related behaviors that are sometimes transferred (often temporarily) into their new home. This is not unlike adopting a child who has spent time in foster care and may suffer from separation anxiety or have other special needs. (But certainly, the many benefits of adopting a dog from a shelter outweigh the risks – most of these dogs are already house-trained, and are through the challenging “puppy phase” of their development). Having empathy for what so many of these poor animals have been through before they come into your home can often mean the difference between responding with kindness and love or anger and punishment (which just makes things worse), when your dog exhibits some of these behaviors.
As this teacher explained the shift in her understanding about the life and “special needs” of some shelter dogs, I began to think about the 125 or more parents who have been participating in weekly “BoneWork” (homework) assignments with their children each week during this program. Although I believed that this program would help children to become increasingly compassionate around dogs, I hadn’t really considered the impact it would have on the adults in these students’ lives. It is my hope that these activities and challenges have inspired conversations between children and their parents at home in which these children, now armed with increased knowledge and insight about dogs, can help their parents to learn to interact with increased empathy and compassion around their family pets, just as this teacher was learning. This is especially important because parents of children this age are generally the primary care-givers for family pets.
Stay tuned and I will be able to share more once I send home surveys for the parents to complete at the end of this program (in only a few more weeks) to find out what their learning and their experience has been!